Theatre: Dreams lost in translation

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The Stary Theatre's production of The Sleepwalkers (King's) is like a bizarre version of Chinese whispers. A German novel has become a Polish play and then - for the International Festival - has been translated into English to be drip-fed to the audience as surtitles: two lines every few seconds over three evenings. By the time it reached Edinburgh, Hermann Broch's 650-page trilogy had metamorphosed into a slow, gloomy stage epic that runs (if that doesn't denote too much haste) for 11 hours. I only managed four and a half of them.

Krystian Lupa's adaptation cuts the first novel in the trilogy and - for the first evening - concentrates on the second one, The Anarchist, the story of an orphan, Esch, who loses his job as an accountant, and drifts into a twilight world of shady showbiz figures and unconscious erotic desires.

Broch's interest in tracking the vagaries and deceptions of our thought processes (in Vienna, he mixed with Wittgenstein and Freud) makes tougher demands on a theatre audience than a reading public. Lupa's production has its moments. Esch and a colleague try to hire women to do wrestling. The men have to demonstrate to the women how to wrestle and end up having a fight. The Polish cast perform with conviction. In particular, Jan Frycz's Esch is a phlegmatic, brooding figure - a dark, blank page that slowly fills with torment. But there is depressingly little visual sense of a larger pre-war society that might enliven this essentially dry literary experience.

The Dutch director Alize Zandwijk produced The Lower Depths (Royal Lyceum) as a one-off at Rotterdam's RO Theatre. Last week, the miserable- looking set was specially reconstructed for the International Festival. The stark blue walls and beaten-up furniture made a piquant contrast with the chandeliers and mouldings of the Royal Lyceum's interior.

Zandwijk's updating of Gorky's 1903 play to the present also streamlines the cast from 16 to 10 and places the doss-house residents under an eerie fluorescent glow. This is the "In Yer Face" version of The Lower Depths, that tells us as much about the 1990s as the 1900s.

It is gritty realism performed by this excellent Dutch cast without any self-conscious theatricality. I've never seen a naked actor absent- mindedly tugging at his penis while he delivers a speech. The ghastly night shelter is run by the Marc de Corte's Kostylev, a bald, pointy- headed figure. The off-stage moment in Gorky's original, when Kostylev pours boiling oil over one of the residents, becomes an on-stage moment. The residents hurl the furniture around in an orgy of violence. This explosive interpretation bludgeons us into submission.

Very few one-person shows can break the 60-minute barrier. The variety in the format just isn't there. Linda Marlowe nearly manages it in Berkoff's Women (Assembly). Her high-energy performance runs the gamut of Berkoff's characters, from Clytemnestra to an East End mum: she's Diana Rigg one moment, Kenneth Williams the next. As a dramatist, Berkoff excels at vituperation, phallic descriptions and quickly sketched cameos. Marlowe delivers these with a scary attack. But too often the writing only engages superficially with its subject. The crowd-pleasing sketch of the woman out hunting is mere class hatred. In spite of Marlowe's five-star treatment, the material leaves an after-taste of misanthropy.

Whoever next? In Lyre Bird (Assembly) the Australian actor Tyler Coppin presents a one-man show about the dancer and actor Sir Robert Helpmann - best known as the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As Helpmann flits round his dressing room, during an interval, Coppin's campy anecdotes take us from his childhood in Australia, where he first had lessons in "fancy dancing", to stardom, and going searching for lyre birds in the outback with Katherine Hepburn. Coppin's Helpmann is a comic creation, a quixotic exhibitionist, whom we laugh at and with: across 90 minutes, this is a remarkable feat of sustained impersonation.

The Nation's Favourite (Pleasance) is a loveable one-man show about Radio One. Adam Lowe has adapted Simon Garfield's book about the battles between Matthew Bannister, Simon Bates, Chris Evans and Chris Evans's agent, and presents the overheated saga in a brightly painted kitchen. With a measured, faux-naif sincerity, Lowe shaves, eats his cornflakes and burns the toast. The Radio One controller emerges as our intrepid hero in this comic strip of awesome earnestness, that's nicely undermined by the inanity of the jingles and output that we hear. Great fun for those who know the station. But a couple of Americans I overheard afterwards were totally baffled.

Duncan Sarkies's Lovepuke (Gilded Balloon) has a single great idea. There are three guys and three girls and hundreds of laminated cards. At certain moments, to speed up the multiple plot-lines, the cast rattle through these cards, giving us key points in the relationships: "sex", "argument", "break-up", "meaningless sex", "more meaningless sex". Sometimes the cast is a team. They all make love - sitting on seats rocking - at the same time. In between, in a series of frank monologues, the characters confide in the audience. There's a touch of Art about it. Sarkies could take his canny social observations a lot further but this is a buoyant piece of theatrical artifice.

'Berkoff's Women', 'Lyre Bird': Assembly, today & Mon; 'The Nation's Favourite': Pleasance, today & Mon. Fringe box office: 0131 226 5138

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